The Giro d’Italia is starting in Ireland this weekend. I’m not that into cycling and hence not that excited about it. It passes through our town on Sunday. They are supposed to be plastering the town pink, though it seems to be still early days. People are being encouraged to dress in pink, too. As I understand it there will be a big merchandise truck arriving in advance of the cyclists. The cyclists will skite through the town at full pelt, taking full advantage of the recently resurfaced 500 metres of road, and it will be all over a few minutes later. Say what you like about the Giro d’Italia, but they fixed the roads.
This event, and the forthcoming local and European elections, have led to a poster problem. Some vocal members of the community have called on election candidates to remove their posters from the race route. They have said it makes the town look untidy for potential visitors who might be watching the spectacle on TV.
This call echoes the stance taken by the Northern Ireland Assembly. Ulster Unionist assembly member Danny Kennedy, for example, called on political parties ‘avail themselves of the opportunity to promote the area positively and, therefore, not show the election posters until after the event.’ Northern Ireland being Northern Ireland, Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister also asked about the ‘terrorist shrines at the side of the road’.
The Environment Minister in the Stormont assembly, Mark H Durkan, pursuing the matter of a ban, referred to the ‘responsibility on us all to present the best possible picture of the North’, and stated that the ‘display of election posters is a cause of annoyance for many members of the public and political parties are reminded of this annoyance each and every election time.’ He subsequently introduced legislation to make it an offence to erect election posters along the route of the race for the three days of the event. Here in Balbriggan, it looks as though candidates are complying, without the need for coercive legislation.
Hardly anyone would claim election posters are a sign of a flourishing democratic culture. Most of them are just photos of someone’s head and their name and maybe a party logo. Few of them contain any substantial political message, and given the limitations of the format, this is hardly surprising. What their extreme proliferation at election time reflects, is, in fact, the absence of a democratic culture.
The posters are there so people can identify the candidate they want to vote for on the list. If they like the look of the candidate, if they like the look of their poster, if they can put a face to the name, they are more likely to vote in favour of that candidate.
If you had a society where there was broad participation in political life, there would be little need for such posters, and there would be far fewer of them, because people would already have a good sense of who is standing, and for what, and the particular personality involved would not be so much at stake. You would not get people simmering away waiting for some hapless candidate to appear at the door, to be subjected to a “you’re all the same and you only ever come around here when you’re looking my vote” verbal salvo, because there would already be fora and assemblies where political matters could be discussed, and acted upon with effect.
This is not to say such a society would look like a tidy town on race day. On the contrary, we can imagine its public spaces would be saturated with political images and messages, addressing what is felt important about a life lived in common.
What the extreme proliferation of candidate images at election time reflects, then, is not a politicised society, even temporarily, but a heavily depoliticised society, in which the agenda is set by political and economic elites, and the wider public is seen as the enemy of progress.
The faces on posters are indirect signs of political idiocy, of withdrawal into a private dimension, of the identification of politics with representation. They are intimations that politics isn’t a collective affair at all, but a matter for lone heads in suits, not people like you.
Now, does this mean it is OK to take down election posters in order to make a place look nice for potential visitors? Is it OK to make such election posters against the law?
Well, when you do this, you are in effect showcasing the triumph of big business over politics. In the particular context of EU-wide elections, you are helping to maximise political idiocy, and to depoliticise European society. I am using the word ‘idiocy’ here in its original sense, relating to someone who withdraws from public affairs. But you also have to be an idiot in the more everyday sense of the word, if you think that some of the flesh and blood TV spectators of the event who might contemplate visiting your town are going to be put off because of a load of election posters. Do you imagine some Italian spectator saying, porco dio, they’re having elections there too! Is there no escape? I don’t have my finger on the pulse when it comes to cycling spectator opinion, but I doubt it, somehow.
And it is sad to say it, but there are some spaces that are even enlivened a bit by the presence of election posters.
It isn’t enough that big business should exercise decisive control over both political institutions and mass media outlets. It isn’t enough that people should be largely denied the possibility of participation in political life, whether in terms of time, or information, or access to responsive institutions, or that their wages and working conditions and public services should be stripped away by politicians claiming to act on their behalf.
What big business demands is the complete subordination of everyday life to the law of the market, to the point that politics can appear only as a grubby and furtive activity undertaken by figures to be hated by default. The only good politician, under these rules, is the one who willingly obeys the dictates of the markets. This means appealing to foreign investors, real or imagined, or potential tourists, real or imagined. And it also means policing local opinion, seeking out displays of popular uniformity -whether in the form of green or pink jerseys- and marginalising dissent.
You can see this subordination in the fact that whilst there has been a push to rid the streets and roads of political posters for the race route, there has been no accompanying push to rid the streets and roads of commercial advertisements. This is despite the fact that there are a great deal of billboards, bus stop ads, and so on lining the route.
The whole point of advertisements is meant to make people feel miserable and at a loss -if they didn’t feel at a loss for something, why would they buy it? Strangely enough, commercial advertisements do not usually meet with the disapproval of Tidy Town committees and other little platoons of volunteers who crop up in the absence of comprehensive public services and democratic life. Certain kinds of misery can be beautiful, for some.